By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, May 31, 2009
In the 1952 movie classic "Deadline-U.S.A.," a crusading editor played by Humphrey Bogart is on the phone with a gangster who warns him: "Print that story, and you're a dead man."
A defiant Bogart, holding the receiver so the presses can be heard in the background, tells the bad guy: "That's the press, baby. The press. And there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing!" For many, that's the enduring perception of those of us in the press. Plead all you want, but we're going to give readers the news, and there's nothing you can do about it.
In truth, sometimes you can do something.
Post readers -- from presidents to peons -- routinely make appeals for information to be withheld. Most are denied. But a few are granted.
If you want to block publication of the sale price of your home or a DUI arrest, forget it. Those are public records. But if there's a threat to personal safety, you've got a chance.
Virginia Editor Mike Semel recalls a case in which federal authorities expressed fear that a planned Post story would elevate death threats against a law enforcement figure. The story ran, but only after it was edited with a special sensitivity to language that might heighten the threats.
On other occasions, The Post has agreed to delay publication of stories that might jeopardize a criminal investigation.
The names of witnesses to crimes have been withheld after The Post agreed that disclosure would endanger their lives. Likewise, The Post deleted the name of a purchaser from its weekly home sales listings after she expressed fear that it might be noticed by a man who was stalking her.
When fancy homes are featured in photo spreads, editors routinely mask the precise location -- often without being asked -- so burglars won't have a road map. Post policy is to print a street address only when it's essential to the story.
But obituaries editor Adam Bernstein denies requests from relatives of the deceased who don't want references to previous marriages or the cause of death. Likewise, The Post's Web site denies requests to delete archival stories of those whose convictions have been expunged by a court.
But The Post has on occasion agreed to help those who faced criminal charges that were later dropped. The Web site has been willing to "redirect" search rankings so that the first archived story to appear will include the dismissal, not the arrest.
The stakes are high when the government asks The Post not to publish material that it thinks will harm national security.
Longtime executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. said The Post agreed a "very few" times to scrap entire stories during his quarter century as a top editor at the paper. Last fall he handed the reins to Marcus Brauchli, who said he has not received a government request to withhold national security information. "We killed a story of mine after CIA officials made their case," said national security reporter Dana Priest. "It was a very easy decision once we understood their rationale."
In 2005, the Bush administration sought to limit disclosures in another Priest story revealing secret CIA interrogation sites in Eastern Europe. Before publication, Downie was summoned to the White House, where the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte made their case.
The story, which won a Pulitzer Prize, was published. But it noted that The Post had agreed not to identify the countries participating in the covert program because "senior U.S. officials" had "argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation."
Government leaders often assert that disclosures would damage national security.
But University of Chicago legal scholar Geoffrey R. Stone, an authority on the subject, said, "There is no clear example of any instance in which the press has published classified information where the publication has caused direct, immediate and grave harm to the United States."
Downie said his meetings with top-level officials about sensitive national security information were civil and rarely "melodramatic."
"We always listened carefully" to the appeals, he said, "but that doesn't mean we agreed all the time."
"We take these decisions very seriously. We lose sleep over them," he said, adding that the decision on whether to publish is seldom clear-cut.
"These are not 90-10 decisions," he said. "Sometimes, they're 51-49."